You can understand parents protecting their children. Parents protect their children out of love. And children need this protection because:
- Children are weak – they are physically uncoordinated.
- Children’s immune systems are not well-developed – they are only slowly exposed to different environments to prevent infections and the resulting diseases. In fact, there will be many environments they will never encounter throughout their lives, if you could have your way.
- Children’s minds are a blank slate – they are learning so much at such a rapid pace that you want to keep it simple for them. Let them learn the basics. There is plenty of time in their lives for them to learn how complicated life can be.
- Children are innocent – their innocence is a source of joy to you and to them. You are unwilling to have this innocence corrupted too soon. You’d rather they ‘grow up’ to the harsh realities of life later, when they have enjoyed a few (or more than a few 🙂 ) years of innocence.
- Children cannot protect themselves – in a world where adults are all powerful, children can be (and often are) ill-treated, manipulated, used and abused in numerous ways. So parents become their shield, taking the roughest of the blows dealt, acting like shock absorbers for their kids.
But children protecting their parents? The very idea seems absurd! Yet, the truth is that children of all ages protect their parents all the time.
What do parents need protection from?
Believe it or not, your child is protecting you from knowing how ‘grown up’ she is. To you, your 6-year old is a sweet little rosebud, as innocent as she was the day she was born – well, almost. But –
At 6, she knows words you don’t know she knows. She knows facts you have no idea she knows. She knows about behaviors and situations that you would be horrified to know she knew. She has had experiences you wouldn’t believe she’s had.
Why do children protect their parents?
Your child protects you for the same reason that you protect him. He loves you. And out of that love emerges his wish not to shock you (this is before he reaches teenage 🙂 ), not to disturb the image of him that you carry in your mind.
You would be upset, disturbed, shocked if you felt he had acquired knowledge before he was ready for it. So he plays the young innocent – not to defraud you – but for your peace of mind.
He knows what that f-word means (he even knows the wide panorama of alternative words you use when you want to say the f-word but are censoring your speech ‘in front of the children’ 🙂 ), but you’d never know it to look at him. He’s pretending not to know for your peace of mind – because you don’t expect him to know ‘at such a young age’.
When the love-making scene borders on the steamy and you glance furtively at him, he’ll be watching with angelic innocence. He probably knows what’s coming next – he might even have seen it in movie trailers, on book covers, hoardings, computer screens, in magazines and countless other media – but he’ll pretend as if he doesn’t know what’s going on. He might even ask you a question about it just to reinforce the idea (your idea) of his innocence.
How do children learn to protect their parents?
Children learn from their parents! Here’s how your child protects you.
When somebody is turning the air blue with abuse, and you pretend not to hear anything wrong, or just usher your child into another room, she gets the message: this is something that will not be acknowledged; it didn’t happen.
But your child meets many other people, is exposed to the world in many other ways. She will get to know another way, through someone else. So she will know. But she will also retain the message. As far as you, her parent, are concerned, she is not supposed to know.
She can’t un-know what she knows, so she will pretend not to know in front of you. All this only to minimize your discomfort – that’s how much she loves you. 🙂
At different ages, there will be different things that you feel it is too early for your child to know about. Accordingly, your child will ‘protect’ you from knowing about her knowledge in these areas.
The dangers of playing the Protection Game
The result: it becomes an elaborate, orchestrated game. You know, but don’t want your child to know; at least, not now.
Your child knows, but also knows that you don’t want him to know now. So he pretends that he doesn’t know.
This might make you happy (you are a ‘good’ parent, able to regulate the rate at which your child is exposed to the real world !). At times, you might suspect that your child’s ignorance is a charade – after all, there’s school and friends and TV and the internet (Net Nanny notwithstanding)… But you’re unwilling to rock the boat.
Again, your child takes his cue from you. He’s unwilling to rock the boat too.
You might choose to play this game, but know that it has insidious results:
- The game teaches your child to ‘not tell the truth’ – he learns to pretend and make-believe that the pretence is the reality.
- The game reduces communication between you and your child – she is unwilling to talk to you about incidents, issues, questions she has. You might think them inappropriate. Rather than risk your discomfort or your displeasure, she simply won’t bring it up with you.
- The game builds distance and distrust between you and your child – he will always evaluate if it is ‘safe’ for him to share information with you. As a result, you will know only the ‘cleaned up’ version of what’s going on in his life. You will not know what conflicts, troubles and issues he is facing. If you don’t know, you can’t help him or advise him. Also, he will be turning to someone for advice – whoever that person might be and whatever the advice he/she might give your child.
What is the alternative?
Should you start explaining the missionary position to your 3-year old?
Like every parent, I believe there is a time and a place for children to be introduced to ideas and knowledge, though it might not always be the time and place of the parents’ choosing.
If inappropriate behavior, content, visuals, language etc. come up, simply tell your child, “I think you are too young to understand this. But if you have heard / read / seen something like this, then we’ll talk about it.” And then, explain to your child in the simplest way possible what it is about.
If your child hasn’t been exposed to something like this, or if you are unwilling to discuss it at the time, tell your child when you will discuss it.
My then 5-year old nephew was a sponge. He soaked up children’s encyclopaedias.
When he asked me how the baby got inside his pregnant mother’s stomach, we had a very interesting conversation:
Me: Do you know what a cell is?
He: Yes, it is the smallest unit of life.
Me: Great! There are special cells in the mother’s body and the father’s body which make babies –
He: What are they called?
Me: They are called gametes. When the gametes of the Mummy and the Daddy meet, they make one combined cell which is the baby. This cell grows into an embryo which becomes a fetus, and then the baby is born.
He was so delighted with learning so many big and important words that he didn’t ask me how the gametes met! And if he had, I’m sure I’d have found a way to tell him.
With another child who was 8, I said: “I will explain everything in detail to you, but let’s wait a couple of years, alright?”
In a couple of years, I raised the topic. Yes, she remembered that I’d said we’d talk about it in a couple of years.
I told her how babies were made, and she was grossed out!
I laughed. “Wait till you’re older, and you’ll wonder how you could have found it yuck!” 🙂
Avoid brushing things under the carpet. Deal with what’s happening around you – it is one of the best ways to stay connected to your child.
It is also one of the best ways to ensure your child gets your interpretation of whatever it is – which is what you want, isn’t it? 🙂
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